Businesses See Fewer Tourists Since Mount St. Helens Debris Slide


The May 14 debris slide blocking access to Mount St. Helens damaged the road to popular sites like Johnston Ridge Observatory and is disrupting nearby businesses that rely on money from tourists headed to the area.

North Fork Survivors Gift Shop Owner Joseph Bongiovanni said he has more anxiety over the economic fallout of the landslide for his Toutle business than he did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bongiovanni told The Daily News his business, which sells items like bigfoot T-shirts, has seen a 60% decrease in visitation since the slide occurred.

North Folk Survival opened days before the landslide, which washed out the 85-foot Spirit Lake Outlet Bridge, damaged the nearby roadway and left thousands of tons of debris in South Coldwater Creek, just before Johnston Ridge.

Eleven people and a dog had to be airlifted out of the area the next day. According to WSDOT spokesperson Tamera Greenwell, there is no time frame for opening the highway.

Popular sites like the Coldwater Lake picnic and boating area and parts of the Hummocks Trail No. 229 are located before the slide, but are still closed.

That is bad news for Bongiovanni, who said he does most of his business between May and late October. For the slide to happen now is the “worst time,” he added.

“I fear the slide more than COVID,” said Bongiovanni, who found following COVID-19 health protocols less intrusive on his business than seeing fewer people head up the mountain.

Kristine Cochrane, visitor center director for the Forest Service facilities at Johnston Ridge, said the site was expecting to return to pre-COVID levels and was slated to open the day after the landslide occurred. She said tours and school trip levels this summer were at the same or higher than previous years.

According to Forest Service data, 108,063 passes were distributed in 2019, compared to 78,382 in 2022, though the latter season was shorter.

Cochrane said most of the large tours headed to Johnston Ridge didn’t return in 2022 even though the Forest Service wasn’t restricting the amount of people at the site after Johnston Ridge fully opened for the first time in three summers in June 2022.

General Manager Katherine Stoughton of Fire Mountain Grill, located 20 miles from the landslide in Toutle, said she is already seeing fewer people stop in and fears the low traffic could affect the restaurant through the season.

James Fratello of Rapid Rides Adventures in Toutle said he has also seen a dip in customers at his camping and white water rafting company. He said since May 14, he’s only had two patrons, and he fears he could lose up to half of his regular customers due to the blocked road.

However, the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center off Interstate 5 Exit 49 in Castle Rock has seen an uptick in tourists. According to Mischa Cowles, a park manager for Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, the center is taking field trips canceled at Johnston Ridge, while other schools are going to Seaquest State Park across the street. Cowles said 300 students recently visited the center.

In an email, Meryl Lassen, a communications consultant for Washington State Parks, said, “staff spent most of last week squeezing new groups into our calendar, which was already almost full.”

Kimberly Bowcutt, director of the Cowlitz County Event Center, said the county has operated a gift shop at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center since 2010. Many tour buses scheduled to visit Johnston Ridge the week of the slide, were rerouted to the visitor center instead, she added.

Despite the damaged road, other nearby sites are open. The highway leading to milepost 43 near the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater is accessible, and guests can still enjoy views from Elk Rock and Castle Lake. Mount St. Helens Forest Learning Center is also open to the public.

Officials are exploring alternative options for people who want to venture to the northern portion of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, according to a U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Department of Transportation press release.

Visitors are advised not to go beyond milepost 43 on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway due to unstable conditions.

Other closures are Boundary Trail 1, Lakes Trail 211, Coldwater Trail 230 and South Coldwater Trail 230A, and the South Coldwater Trailhead parking lot.